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Posted June 24, 2004

A father's passing

Outspoken priest gave voice to liberal views

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/21/2004

SHARON -- The Rev. Robert W. Bullock, a leader among Boston-area Catholic priests and an unusually outspoken critic of the church's handling of the sexual abuse crisis, died Saturday at home from metastatic cancer. He was 75.

The president of the Boston Priests Forum, an organization he helped found, Father Bullock was willing to speak directly and publicly about failings of the archdiocese in handling clergy sexual abuse, and he also criticized priests, including himself, for failing to spot and stop the abuse.

In 2002, he joined 57 other local priests in calling for Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign. More recently, he had become increasingly critical of the archdiocese for what he saw as a lack of due process and a slow pace in the handling of contested abuse allegations against about two dozen priests who have been in limbo for two years or more.

''He loved the church, and he loved it enough to be critical of it," said Robert O'Shea, 74, of Cambridge, a high school classmate who remained one of Bullock's closest friends. ''He didn't like going against his cardinal one bit, but he did it because he felt it was necessary, and he showed not only good judgment but great courage."

Father Bullock, who had served on the presbyteral council during Law's tenure, had been a leading liberal voice in the archdiocese for decades, starting with his job overseeing campus ministry during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. For years, he was the Catholic representative on a local interfaith radio talk show, Talking Religion on WRKO.

Until the abuse crisis exploded in 2002, Father Bullock was best known as a leading voice in Catholic-Jewish relations and an authority on Christian anti-Semitism. He was a leading supporter and onetime board chairman of Facing History and Ourselves, an educational organization with a focus on the Holocaust; he had served as Catholic chaplain at Brandeis University from 1969 to 1978; and since 1978, he was pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon, a largely Jewish town. Father Bullock traveled to Israel at least 14 times and wrote a chapter in a book of essays about the impact of the Holocaust on Christian worship.

''He really was a giant," said Rabbi Herman J. Blumberg of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, who had known Father Bullock since 1978 and had traveled twice to the Middle East with him. ''This was more than the usual interfaith thing -- he really was interested in the essence of Judaism and its link to Christianity."

Father Bullock's death plunged his small parish into mourning. Deacon Michael A. Iwanowicz announced the news at each Mass yesterday. Many parishioners wept as the Father's Day liturgy was transformed by references to Bullock's passing. The parish, with a church that seats only 200 people, is now trying to figure out where it might accommodate Father Bullock's funeral.

Father Bullock had been hospitalized recently at Brigham and Women's Hospital, but returned home Wednesday, where parishioners held a prayer vigil and then supplied round-the-clock care for their dying pastor. ''He was at peace," said Father Bullock's brother, the Rev. Myron F. Bullock, 76, who is the pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Gloucester, and who had anointed his brother Saturday morning. ''He wanted to die in the rectory, and he did."

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, who was traveling back to Boston from a bishops' conference in Denver yesterday, issued a statement saying, ''I offer my prayers and condolences to Father Bullock's brother, Father Myron Bullock, his brother priests, family and friends, and the people of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Sharon. Father Bullock was a good and faithful priest who served the Church well for so many years. May he rest in peace."

Father Bullock grew up in Sacred Heart parish in Newton Centre, attending the parish elementary school, St. Sebastian's Country Day School, and then Boston College, where he decided to become a priest upon his graduation in 1951. Ordained in 1956, he served in several parishes, starting at St. Camillus in Arlington, before being assigned the post of archdiocesan director of campus ministry in 1966. He held that job until 1978.

''I wouldn't call him a radical, but he was a true liberal in the best sense -- he understood the importance of testing the tradition against the new experience of life in America in the 1960s, and he was willing to listen to young people in a way that was unusual for a member of the establishment," said James Carroll, author and Boston Globe contributor. Carroll, then a priest and chaplain at Boston University, said Father Bullock persuaded Cardinal Richard J. Cushing to ease the way for young Catholic men to win conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. ''He was willing to move into uncharted territory as a priest, which is why he was able . . . to see so clearly what had to be done during the priestly sex abuse scandal."

Father Bullock was himself occasionally the target of criticism. Some liberal priests were frustrated that the priests' forum -- an organization Father Bullock had initially seen as a group priests could use to discuss issues such as burnout -- was not more aggressive in pushing for change. Some conservatives questioned whether he knew or should have known that one of the college chaplains he had supervised, the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, was an alleged abuser. Shanley was defrocked this year.

Father Bullock said he knew nothing of Shanley's misconduct, but reflected on the broader issue in a 2002 speech at Boston College, saying, ''The abused children were our parishioners. The abusers were our brother priests. We may have heard rumors, we may have had suspicions, but only a few of us did anything. . . ."

Father Bullock was a voracious reader. His rectory was packed with books and magazines, many underlined by him, about Catholic theology, World War II, contemporary issues in the Catholic Church. On Saturday, a friend, Margot Stern Strom of Facing History, read to him from one of the books he had lying nearby -- a biography of philosopher Hannah Arendt.

Yesterday, parishioners lit the Easter candle at Our Lady of Sorrows, a sign of their belief in life after death. The celebrant of the Mass, the Rev. Peter Walsh, spoke of Father Bullock's ''strong and powerful voice" in support of abuse victims, in critique of the hierarchy, in concern for his fellow priests. Midway through the Mass, Walsh asked the congregation to reflect, in silence, on their favorite memories of Bullock. Some held their heads in their hands; others wept. And in the back of the church, a young girl stood on a pew and started to dance.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.